What Happens When You Make Someone Feel Wealthy

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Since society’s winners tend to get to make the rules, the way winners react to being winners is really important. What’s the psychological effect of feeling like you’ve crawled to the top of the heap (or have been ensconced there comfortably for a while)? A key to answering this question is understanding that people can’t always gauge their position in society correctly — sometimes, the best they can do is take a quick glance at their neighbors and base their opinion on that. A new study in Psychological Science led by Jazmin Brown-Iannuzzi of UNC shows that how rich people think they are affects their views on redistribution more than their actual wealth — and that, in an experimental setting, at least, this is a pretty easy feeling to manipulate.

The study had two components. The first consisted of surveys in which the researchers gauged respondents’ views on redistribution and gathered information about both their income and how wealthy they felt compared to the rest of the country. There wasn’t a connection between actual wealth and attitudes toward redistribution, but the wealthier people felt, the less cool they were with kicking some of their income down the ladder. And researchers were able to amplify this effect by telling respondents they had more (or less) discretionary income than “similar” Americans.

Next, the researchers tested to see if they could artificially manipulate these feelings using an investing game. “Some performed ‘better than 89% of all players,’ watching their assets rise and then dip by 20% due to income redistribution,” explains the study’s press release. “Others performed ‘worse than 89% of all players,’ seeing their assets dip before receiving a bonus through redistribution.” Afterwards, the players were asked how they felt about the rules. The winners wanted them rejiggered significantly, while the losers were fine with them as they were.

What all this comes down to — and this is something political scientists have shown over and over — is that people don’t always have a clear sense of where they stand in society’s pecking order, but they do fiercely guard whatever advantages they think they’ve been able to carve out.